Unmasking innovation: La Jolla groups step up to create COVID-19 battle gear for hospital staffs

A Scripps Hospital employee assembles donated face shields.

As coronavirus cases climb, so does the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers. Supplies are dwindling, but efforts by others to help are surging, along with their creativity in getting frontline workers the equipment they need. And area hospitals are grateful.

“The normal places we would get PPE are running out,” Scripps Health president/CEO Chris Van Gorder told the Light of the challenge to keep up with demand. “We monitor our PPE every single day, and are at 200 to 400 times the normal use-rate now.”

The steep increase in PPE results from the high contagion rates of COVID-19, he said: “The virus is droplet-spread, so people need to be wearing the appropriate isolation gowns, masks or face shields.”

Normally, Van Gorder explained, supply manufacturing “comes from China, which stopped shipping those supplies due to the COVID-19 impact there.” As of April 13, he continued, “San Diego County only had access to 3,000 gowns. Scripps goes through more than 3,000 gowns a day.

“Another obstacle is that since we believe we’ve been able to flatten the curve in San Diego, supplies from state and federal governments are diverted to other communities with a heavier impact, but we still need supplies.”

Several local organizations stepped up to address the growing need. Van Gorder said he was approached by Denver Guess, the science department chair at Francis Parker School, with a proposal to meet hospital PPE needs with 3D printing. Natalie Ganz, advancement director of the San Diego Public Library Foundation, offered aid via the libraries’ 3D printers, and Qualcomm stepped in to support the 3D printing and provide resources. “It is remarkable to me how individuals and organizations really step up in times of need,” Van Gorder shared.

The Bishop’s School math teacher Jennifer Seymour assembles (and wears) a 3-D printed face shield.

He noted The Bishop’s School joined the volunteer effort when Upper School math teacher Jennifer Seymour reached out through Scripps’ supply chain managers to offer her 3D printing knowledge and experience. Seymour, who also works in the school’s Maker space (a lab for students and groups interested in 3D printing, laser cutting and robotics), began printing visors and assembling face shields to donate after a nurse at UCSD Health contacted her to ask for help. “I started printing at home right away,” Seymour recalled, “and I e-mailed student members of the Maker club who had 3D printers at home. Within a week, we had donated 100 face shields to UCSD.

“At the same time, we began reaching out to various places, including Scripps, to see who would accept handmade donations as opposed to professional products. The face shield design was approved by Scripps, and I dropped off several. Now, we’re just working on printing more of the visors.”

The visors, Seymour explained, are printed from a design created by 3D printing company Budmen, and are made from rolls of plastic filament. Using Bishops’ supplies, Seymour and her students have their 3D printers running nonstop, laser cutting the plastic for the front, cutting the foam down to size, adding the elastic band — and actually doing the full assembly of the entire mask.

Seymour noted the project isn’t required of her students and isn’t graded, nor will it count for community service hours (as requirements are now waived due to shelter-in-place orders). “Students don’t need to do this; they just want to. They kept putting time and energy into it, even over their spring break,” she said.

Van Gorder noted that while the visors can be cleaned and reused, “the shields that attach to the visors need to be replaced,” and Scripps is ordering the additional face shields for this purpose. He also shared that with so many local groups donating supplies, Scripps is able to source an additional 50 or more masks and shields a day, and that “using modern technology to meet our needs, seeing the best in people, makes Scripps feel very blessed.”

Seymour is also working on a related project, “the next stage of PPE,” she said, helping design and print parts for Andy Coy, a La Jolla resident and entrepreneur who is working on converting full-face snorkel masks into personal respirators.

After Coy saw a news story about mask conversion projects in Europe, he told the Light he began reaching out to his network of San Diego contacts to procure the materials and technology needed to do something similar here. After connecting with friends at UCSD, Coy had a prototype within a couple of days.

Andy Coy’s donation: a snorkel mask converted into a personal respirator.

“The full-face snorkel mask uses a 3D printed attachment that includes an N-99 filter, which filters 99 percent of bacterial and viral particles,” Coy explained of his device, which is intended for anesthesiologists while they are intubating patients to protect against particles exhaled or coughed during the process.

Coy, who is also working with local company SeeScan on the project, has been able to make several of these personal respirators, which he said are durable and hold up to current COVID-19 standards of cleaning.

The challenges for Coy now, who has donated several of the masks to UCSD Health, are building enough capital to procure the snorkel masks, finding enough N99 filters, and seeking FDA approval for wider hospital use.

Trials aside, Coy will continue his efforts. “You feel so helpless, and to actually make a change, get my kids involved in it, feels good,” he said.